Feb 11, 2023

We'll Always Have Wilkes-Barre

FM Kirby Center - Wilkes Barre, PA
My dad's favorite movie of all time is the 1943 classic that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay: Casablanca.  It's a movie that I've never watched and only had the vaguest of ideas of what it was about, but that changed last night when my dad brought my wife and I with him to a screening of the film at the Kirby Center.

The Kirby Center has partnered with a group called Flashback Cinema whose goal is to celebrate classic movies on the big screen.  They have arrangements with theaters and chains across 38 states to hold screenings of some of the greatest films of all time, including Murder On The Orient Express, My Fair Lady, and It Happened One Night.

There was a short pre-show before the movie that included trailers for some of the other movies that are being shown by Flashback Cinema over the next few months, as well as a full length 1947 Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoon called Slick Hare.  It features Elmer as a waiter at a restaurant, and he's serving Humphrey BogartBogie wants rabbit for dinner, but Elmer explains that the restaurant is fresh out of rabbit.  Bogie responds by pulling out a machine gun and threatening Elmer to serve him a rabbit within 20 minutes... or else.  Sure enough, he finds Bugs Bunny munching on some carrots in the kitchen, and the chase begins.  The cartoon ends with a surprise appearance by Lauren Bacall (who is only referred to as "baby" in the cartoon), so it was the perfect animated short for a Casablanca pre-show.

They also showed a brief introduction to the movie by the founder of Flashback CinemaJohn Hersker.  As soon as he said his name, my wife leaned over to me and said "His name is Hersker.  I wonder if he had something to do with the Hersker Theater in West Hazleton".  As it turns out, his parents not only owned and operated the Hersker Theater, but they also operated the Church Hill Cinema for a period of time.

Hersker Theater - West Hazleton, PA
Church Hill Cinema - Hazleton, PA

The Hersker Theater in West Hazleton, PA first opened for business in 1915 and has gone under many different names in the years that followed.  It's still in business today as a movie theater and restaurant called Cinema And Drafthouse.  I'm very familiar with this place because it's about three blocks away from my grandparents house where I lived when I was a teenager, and it's within walking distance of where I have lived for the past ten years.

The Church Hill Cinema opened in 1969 near the Church Hill Mall and it was our town's primary first-run movie theater when I was a kid in the 80's and 90's.  It closed in the year 2000 when a larger Hoyt Cinema with more screens and amenities opened its doors just a few miles away near the Laurel Mall.  The Hoyt is now the Regal Cinema that we visit on a weekly basis.  The old Church Hill Cinema building is still standing, but it has since been remodeled and is now split between an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and a beauty school.

The vast majority of movies that I ever saw in theaters was either at the Hersker/Key Theater, the Church Hill Cinema, or the Laurel Drive-In.  I'm going to write more about the history each of these Hazleton-area theaters at some point in the future.

My first thought after seeing the connection to the Hersker Theater on the Flashback Cinema website is that it was pretty cool that a local guy is working to bring classic movies back to the big screen.  When I did a little more research, I found that I was severely underestimating Mr. Hersker's resume in the motion picture business.  He's a former Executive Vice President of Distribution at Paramount Pictures.  He's was also the President and CEO of the Movie Tavern Inc chain, which is a similar concept to the Cinema And Drafthouse, and he's on the board of directors of the Kirby Center, which led to the theater's partnership with his Flashback Cinema.
The Wilkes-Barre Record - Wilkes-Barre, PA  (February 25, 1943)

The first time that Casablanca was shown at the Kirby Center was on February 25th, 1943.  The building was called the Comerford Theater at the time.  The advertisement referred to the film as being exciting, timely, and thrilling, and while it is definitely all three of those things, I never appreciated just how timely the plot of this movie was when it premiered in theaters.

The Wilkes-Barre Record - Wilkes-Barre, PA  (February 25, 1943)

Just to show how topical the movie was, this is the front page of the issue of the Wilkes-Barre Record newspaper that had the advertisement for Casablanca at the Comerford Theater.  It premiered on November 26th, 1942 at the Hollywood Theater in midtown Manhattan and went nationwide on January 23rd, 1943 during the height of World War II.  It would be over two years before Germany and Japan surrendered and brought an end to one of the bloodiest periods in human history. 

Casablanca is absolutely worthy of its reputation as one of the all-time great films in motion picture history.  It's a compelling drama that's set in a very specific time and place in modern history.  I can only imagine the impact that it had on audiences who saw this movie while the Second World War was going on in the world around them.  In addition to being a fascinating story with sets that are only exceeded by the incredible performances of everyone involved, it has a lot more laughs than I was expecting.

This movie has long been on my list of things that I'll get around to one of these days.  As I write that last sentence, I'm wondering how many things are left of the average person's list when they die.  In this case, my procrastination worked out.  I got to see it for the first time on the big screen at an 85 year old theater in the same seats that moviegoers sat in when they watched Casablanca when it was the new hit film, and I got to see it with my dad who shared his all-time favorite movie with me.  Not a bad way to spend a Friday night.